Viral-content website Mashable recently asked Bill Nye if he could explain the basic concepts of evolution using emoji. The idea was that the generation that grew up with Bill Nye explaining science to them (yours truly, for one) didn’t have the luxury of text messaging, cat memes, or videos of the Old Spice guy playing music with his muscles. The reverse is also true — today’s social-media generation doesn’t have the luxury of Bill Nye teaching them stuff every day after school and making them laugh until their sides hurt by repeatedly mispronouncing the word “anemone.” So they decided to give today’s kids some love by incorporating emoji into a lesson about evolution from Bill Nye. At the writing of this post, it’s had more than 48,700 shares. (Update: Superhero Labber Donna found the video on YouTube, and the thing’s over a million views).
This is a great idea in theory! Every time we can make science — especially those topics corrupted by politics — more approachable, it’s a good thing. Unfortunately, I don’t think Bill pulled this one off. The video comes off as frantic, and rather than making the lesson more entertaining, the emoji only serve to distract the viewer from the information being communicated.
Even if you leave out the emoji, the lesson was barely useful. This was my understanding of evolution before I became a ravenous science buff: there was this primordial soup with a bunch of bacteria that eventually turned into animals that eventually went on land and then eventually turned into the animals we have today, and all that happened over billions of years. It seems to me that this is the understanding most people have before they really delve into the topic. That’s essentially the lesson Bill provides in this video.
I don’t write this post to give Bill Nye a hard time. He was given ridiculous constraints on his lesson, and it’s mostly understandable that he wasn’t successful in what they set out to achieve. I write this post more to introduce readers to other, more successful examples where the basics of evolution were demonstrated in an entertaining and understandable way.
What he leaves out are the essentials that most people are missing. How, for instance, the DNA in every generation undergoes mutations, most of which are harmless, some of which lead to their demise, and some of which make them capable of creating more offspring. Over millions of years, these tiny positive mutations compile to turn into new enzymes, organs, body parts, and even species, all because they helped each generation survive to pass on their DNA. (True, Bill does address mutations, but the lesson I got was “the molecules went through mutations and then turned into bacteria and then animals.”) For an example of how to illustrate this in an entertaining way, go no further than Darryl Cunningham. He explained this beautifully in his fantastic book, Science Tales. Here’s an excerpt, but you should really buy the book to get the full experience:
Another commonly misunderstood concept: if we evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys? The answer there is that the primate species on Earth today aren’t the same ones that we (and they) evolved from. To put it another way: we didn’t evolve from monkeys, we share an ancestor with them. Baba Brinkman created the groundbreaking Rap Guide to Evolution to explain essentials such as these through the language of hip-hop. The lyrics of “Creationist Cousin” illustrate the idea well:
That’s the idea that most enrages Darwin’s detractors
The idea that we came from ape-like ancestors
Some people still question this, and say: “If we came from
Monkeys, then how come there’s monkeys still in existence?”
Allow me to illustrate a similar instance
I’m descended from Dutch Calvinist immigrants
Who came to Canada in the 1950s
And I still have second cousins who live in the Netherlands
But they’re not my ancestors; they’re my relatives
Since we have common genetic elements
Inherited from our great grandparents
That’s just three generations back, but here’s the relevance
Three thousand generations back, human beings all have
Common ancestors, so really we’re all relatives
Which also means all relationships are relatively incestuous
Further back we have common ancestors with chimps
And gorillas and elephants and plants, and billions
Of years back our ancestors are all single-cellular
Bill Nye had less than two minutes and a limited set of emojis with which to make this happen. Plus, he’s already proven himself as a killer science communicator, so he gets a pass. Still, I think a successful evolution lesson with emoji is possible. If you think you can do a better job with these constraints, make a video and post it in the comments!